In a modest studio in the heart of India’s capital New Delhi, a group of five friends are getting ready for a fashion photo shoot.
Excited, Rupa sits before the dressing table mirror, carefully applying black eyeliner. Once done, she leans back to check her reflection, and smiles. Her hair has been styled, her make-up is finished, and she is ready for her close-up. The 22-year-old takes a final look at herself, standing up, making sure the white sleeveless dress isn’t creased, and falls properly to the floor.
Next to her Laxmi, 24, is checking how she looks in a blue-and-gold dress she’s been asked to model. “You look nice,” Rupa tells her, and they both giggle.
Like everybody in the studio the women are nervous as well as excited, for today will be one of the most memorable events in their lives – a fashion shoot that will appear in newspapers and magazines around the globe. It isn’t a normal photo shoot and the five women aren’t models. Rupa and her friends are acid attack survivors with scarred and disfigured faces.
But they’re determined to show their faces to the world to prove that they are women following their dreams, and not merely victims. “I’m thrilled and scared to face the camera,” admits Rupa, who has designed all the clothes she and her friends will model today. “I’m thrilled to be debuting my fashion collection, but I haven’t faced a camera in seven years and am scared because I don’t know how all this will turn out.”
Outside, it is a blistering 40˚C+, and the air conditioner in the studio is struggling to cool the air as photographer Rahul Saharan sets up his lights and checks his equipment. Rupa doesn’t seem to notice though, as she rushes around making last-minute adjustments.
And then it’s time for the women to step before the camera and show the world just how far they’ve come.
For them Rupa has been a beacon of hope and inspiration, refusing to let her scars stop her from trying to achieve her dreams of being a designer. With immense help from Stop Acid Attacks, a New Delhi-based charity that helps and supports women like the five happily posing for Rahul, and their support centre Chhanv, which rehabilitates them, Rupa attended a fashion design course and created the collection of Indian dresses being showcased today.
“I am super excited but also worried – I don’t know how people will react to our pictures,” Rupa says. “Do you think people would like to see our faces? Whatever happens, I think this is an unbelievable idea.”
The shoot was the brainchild of Chhanv – after volunteers there saw how talented Rupa was – and fashion photographer Rahul, 26.
“I have been associated with Chhanv for more than two years,” Rahul says. “When I found out that Rupa had created her own line of clothing – Rupa Creations – I offered to do the shoot.
“Apart from showing off the clothes, I wanted to change the way people perceive beauty. I wanted to tell people to look beyond the surface, to tell them that beauty is really within a person. That’s why I asked all the five acid attack victims not to use any make-up to camouflage their scars. They could only use kohl for their eyes. I wanted them to look beautiful naturally.”
Acid attacks are not uncommon in Asia, and in fact reports of such incidents have come in from across the world. According to the London-based group Acid Survivors Trust International, some 1,500 acid attacks are reported worldwide every year. However, the actual number is probably higher, it says. India passed a law last year severely limiting sales of cheap – but powerful – acid that was available over the counter to curb the crime, but Stop Acid Attacks said at least 200 attacks have happened in India since then.
Initially, Rupa struggles to strike the right pose for her shots, mainly because her facial muscles were affected in the attack, but it’s clear she wants to look her best and is willing to go to any lengths for the perfect picture.
Standing before the soft arc lights, she begins to relax. And after she nails her solo shots, Rahul suggests she pose with her friends Laxmi, 24, Rita, 19, and sisters Chanchal, 21, and Sonam, 18, who she met through the charity. Confidently following directions from the photographer, the amateur models are soon laughing and posing together. After every few frames, they crowd around Rahul to view their pictures on his camera.
“After the acid attack I never took photos of myself,” says Rupa. “I used to walk around with my face covered in a shawl. I thought I would never be able to show the world my face after my stepmother splashed acid on me.”
Two years after Rupa was born, her mother died while giving birth to her brother. Unable to take care of two toddlers, her father, a barber, married again so the kids would have a mother.
“Initially, my stepmother was kind to us, but as we started growing up and she had two children of her own, she started beating me and my brother,” says Rupa, who lived in Muzaffarnagar, in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh.
“She would torture us and even leave us hungry for days.” She says she did complain to her father, but he wouldn’t listen or go against his wife.
Rupa’s stepmother soon became intolerant of her and her brother and convinced their father to send them away to their uncle’s home in New Delhi, which he did. But when she turned 15, her father brought her home with the plan to marry her off, even though it was illegal as she was a minor.
“I remember my father came to our uncle’s home and asked us to pack our bags to return to our village. That was the last day I went to school,’’ she says. “On my way back to the village I wondered if my stepmother had softened a little, but we were greeted with the same bitter person.
“In fact, she had become worse, and made me work the whole day. I would wake up at 5am and work until 11pm. Many times, I went to sleep on an empty stomach.”
When her father said he was arranging her marriage, Rupa didn’t argue. “I felt marriage would be better so I could escape the clutches of my stepmother and start a new life with a new family.”
A day before her engagement, on August 2, 2008, Rupa’s father went to the city to buy new clothes for her and sweets for the family as part of the traditional celebrations. But her stepmother was not happy with the idea of spending money on Rupa.
That night, as the teenager slept in the porch of her house because it was too hot indoors, she was attacked by her stepmother.
“It was around 3am, when I suddenly felt a searing pain in my face… like someone had splashed a mug of boiling water on my face,” says Rupa. “The pain of burning flesh was unbearable. It was like my face was on fire… like someone had placed burning embers on my face.”
In her panic, she ran out aimlessly, tripping and falling on the roadside.
“It was pitch black outside and I fell many times, screaming, but my stepmother never came to help me. Eventually my paternal grandfather, who lived close by, ran to help me.”
An hour passed before she was given any medical help and by then Rupa had lost consciousness. “I woke up in a hospital the next morning. I could not understand what was happening and I could still feel the burning sensation.” A doctor then told her that she had suffered 80 per cent burns on her face. She had also lost the vision in her right eye.
“I couldn’t react to the doctor’s words. I was shocked. And I fell unconsciousness again.” She went on to have 11 reconstructive operations and needs five more cosmetic ones.
Rupa’s stepmother was imprisoned for 18 months until the trial. But due to lack of evidence she was found not guilty in 2010 and set free.
“I was devastated when I learnt they’d let her go,” says Rupa, who confronted her outside court, begging her to admit what she did. But her stepmother continued to deny she had anything to do with the attack. “Worse, my father stood by her throughout.”
Rupa no longer dwells on that.
“It has taken me six years to realise that I am not a victim any more but a survivor. And I am a strong amazing woman. I just hope other people will appreciate my talents and believe in me.’’
While the surgeries have helped Rupa restore her face, the attack left her dejected. For years, she did not dare to face herself in the mirror and never left her uncle’s house without a veil. “One day, two months after the attack, while strolling on the verandah, I saw my severely disfigured face in a mirror hung up on the wall. I could not sleep for two months thinking about my horrible reflection.
“Slowly I started accepting myself, but I was still unsure about people’s acceptance, so I started hiding my face with a veil. Even though it was suffocating, the veil was my inseparable companion. I did not have the nerve to leave the house without covering my charred face.”
Rupa’s confidence began to be restored in December 2013, when she came in contact with volunteers at Chhanv – which means shelter, in Hindi – a support centre run by Stop Acid Attacks.
“I was told about Chhanv by a fellow acid attack survivor while on a visit to the hospital. I felt the need to meet other people associated with the charity as I needed support to help me get over my fears and worries. So one day I went and I was surprised to see girls like me, moving around confidently on the charity’s premises, without scarves. They were laughing and joking and also looking at ways to work hard and achieve their goals.
“I instantly realised I was not going to live in confinement any more; there was hope. I too had a dream to achieve.
“I had always wanted to be a designer so with Chhanv’s help I took up a seven-month tailoring workshop.” Here she learned how to design and sew clothes. “Now they’re helping me to raise money to open my boutique in Delhi,” she says proudly.
The boutique will employ other acid attack survivors. “My only dream now is to be famous in the fashion industry,” she says.
The first set of clothes she designed for Rupa Creations, three baby dresses, have already been bought by an American tourist. Now she is excited about the potential of her latest collection. “Every day of my existence is testimony to my struggle and I am glad that I am standing on my own two feet today.”
All the other women who modelled have also had to struggle to come to terms with their condition.
Laxmi, 22, was just 16 when she was attacked by a friend’s brother after she refused his marriage proposal. “He used to send me text messages saying ‘I love you’ but I used to ignore them,” she says.
Then one day while she was waiting for a bus in a busy market area in Delhi, the man and his friend walked up to her, pushed her to the ground, and poured acid over her face and body.
“I was crying for help, but no one came to my rescue. I tried waving at the passing cars. They did not stop, no one helped. I almost got run over three times. I could not even open my eyes properly.
“I felt as if someone had set my whole body on fire. The skin was just coming off, it was dripping, from my hands and from my face.”
Laxmi has undergone seven face reconstruction surgeries.
She has since gone on to make numerous TV appearances against such attacks and also launched a petition to the Supreme Court, which led to the regulations on acid sales. Earlier this year, US first lady Michelle Obama presented her with the International Women of Courage Award for her campaigns.
Rita became a victim of an acid attack following a dispute her family had with her aunt over property.
“I loved sports, particularly volleyball,” says Rita, who lived in Rohtak in the northern Indian state of Haryana. One evening while on the way to a volleyball practice session, two young men on motorbikes rode up alongside her near a bustling area in the city and threw acid on her face, before disappearing into the crowd.
Although there were plenty of people in the area, no one helped. “It was my brother who was passing by who saw me screaming for help on the road and rushed me to the hospital.” She later came to know that her aunt Rajwanti had orchestrated the attack to target her parents over the property dispute. The aunt and seven others were charged with the attack. The case is still in court while the aunt is out on bail, she says.
Sisters Sonam, 18, and Chanchal, 21, were asleep on the terrace at home when a group of men doused them with acid. The girls had questioned them for harassing them in their village in Uttar Pradesh and one of the men, Anil, wanted revenge because Chanchal had turned down his marriage proposal. Unfortunately her sister who was sleeping next to her also sustained serious injuries.
Both the sisters were rushed to hospital where the doctors managed to save their lives. However, the physical and mental scars remain.
Anil and the rest of the gang have been arrested and are in jail. The case is still ongoing.
Rahul is planning to organise a photo exhibit and help the acid attack survivors with the proceeds.
“This photo shoot is my tribute to all the brave women across the globe who have gone through this gruesome torture,” he says.
“We want to tell acid attack survivors that it’s perfectly fine to show your faces.”
Rupa can’t stop smiling. “We have been getting a lot of positive response from people who are keen to see more of my work,” she says. “It’s that energy – not sympathy – which will help people like us move forward.”
To support these women, visit stopacidattacks.org.